Safest Spot in Town Queers


Safest Spot in Town

Monologues charting the UK gay experience. As the Blitz hits London, Fredrick is grateful that he survived in a very unlikely place of refuge.


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BOMBS OVERHEAD

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I require a drink. That - that is for certain.

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I'll be seen here, though. Someone'll bring up my name and say,

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"Isn't that Andrew's boy standing over there?"

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Andrew's boy.

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You'd think this was a bush village.

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Bush village, that way.

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Soho, Bloomsbury, Piccadilly Circus - full of clowns.

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Everything else is either slum or pompous, and little in between.

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I know what I'm saying.

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I've run the length of this city, so I know it all - all of it.

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The East End too.

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And I don't just mean cruising up and down Whitechapel High Street

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like those old queens do, no. I mean down by the docks.

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Workers from around the world with big load-lifting arms.

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Oh, my God...

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If their overalls could speak,

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they'd shame up the whole of polite society.

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There's the Chinese, and people from the West Indies, and more.

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And the locals, of course.

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Mmm. Hands as rough as Empire.

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But down over there you're never far away from an alleyway,

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and a "poof roaching".

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Yes, that's what they call them - "poof roachers".

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The men who might just as well leave you for dead afterwards.

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That's after they've taken their pleasure.

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The beating come, and your money go.

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Threats to involve the law

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if they believe you've got a reputation worth looking out for.

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No, the East End is not for me, mm-mm.

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What is for me is much harder to fathom.

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This mess of dance halls, theatres, smoke-filled bars

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and endless gossip that draws me in,

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holds me close.

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This bush village.

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Three years ago - almost to the day when I first come here -

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Southampton docks was where I first arrived, all sea-legged and smiley.

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I thought I knew it all. I thought I knew all there was to know about

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the motherland, and daffodils, and the poets from the Great War.

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I thought I knew what to expect.

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My daddy told me about the way

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cold here creeps into your fingers and toes until your bones weep.

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He talked me to death about the English cricket teams.

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He packed me a bat and some kneepads and told me, "Off you go."

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"If you can't be a sportsman like me,

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"best go get yourself a proper degree.

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"Come back with a profession.

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"Make yourself into a lawyer, or doctor,

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"and don't bring no shame on we."

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And that was that.

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I was free.

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I was almost 22 and unmarried, no profession,

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but more than good enough grades to get me into law school.

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But I didn't want law school over there,

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and I didn't really want it here either.

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What I wanted, what I still want...

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it's much harder to fathom.

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But it doesn't look like a wife,

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or a briefcase.

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1938, yes, and what a time to arrive.

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I had the spring and summer to myself.

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I saw Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, countryside,

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all kinds of people I didn't understand.

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I saw poor white people for the first time.

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A white man trundling along with a broom sweeping the streets.

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White men begging.

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Old white men with sunken eyes,

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still lost from a war they'd fought two decades before.

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I was confused.

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My father never tell me about all that.

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In Wales, I became a valet for a gentleman.

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Oh, his poor wife.

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If she ever knew the things we did behind her back.

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My daddy's kneepads come in handy, I tell you.

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HE CHUCKLES

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But Wales was not for long.

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London was my calling.

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When I come back here, I made a few shillings as an artist's model.

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Standing naked and still while the city ran around me,

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painting me all different shades of wrong.

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At some point, though, I stopped looking at the finished work

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when the artist called me round to the other side of the easel.

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Sometimes it's best to keep your eyes closed

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while keeping your eyes open.

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I started moving with the bohemians in Bloomsbury.

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They were all painters and writers and rabble-rousers and hangers-on,

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and I was adopted into their group.

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Their Freddie.

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I don't remember all their names,

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but their bedposts I can describe in great detail.

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Four-posters, some of them,

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or sometimes a chaise longue in the middle of a studio.

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Tiny lickle rooms with laughing floorboards.

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We'd have late nights drinking at the bottle parties, those places

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- places like the Shim Sham -

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where you had someone other than your shadow to dance with.

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You could press another man to you, hold him close,

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feel him stiffen against your hips,

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and then... release.

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You had to glide with the music, you see.

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That's unless someone at the bar had called for the police,

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in which case when you heard the footsteps raining down,

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you took the hand of the nearest lady.

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It was a fluid movement.

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Then there were the soirees,

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and what they called dalliances between three - or more - of us.

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And it was just then,

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just as I was going to think about my studies, in amongst all of them,

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in the middle of the room, there he is.

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Andrew.

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As sweet and as dizzy-making as an entire bottle of Wray Nephew rum.

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He's over twice my age on paper,

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but there is that something in my blood that draws the sweet

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and complicated to me.

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He has this wicked grin,

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a posterior like one of those marble statues

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I used to go visit at the British Museum.

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Thighs you'd want to hold on to for years.

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He painted me into his life,

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he carried me into his studio,

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and we did not leave it for a month.

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And then...

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Oh, and then.

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I remember seeing myself

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in one of his watercolours on a wall in a gallery in Belgravia,

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and I couldn't help thinking to myself,

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"Why he paint me so dark, eh?"

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I remember standing there with my hand up to the wall,

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and my arm, and contrasting it.

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He had me down just right.

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He had me down so right he could paint me without me being there,

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and after a while I was not there so much.

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Some part of me will always remain on that wall, I imagine.

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In a gold leaf frame.

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The other part of me needs to move on.

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Could never really stick itself to a white canvas.

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I don't want to waste my youth stuck to the wall of his imagination.

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He, though, he'd rather keep me there.

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We write to each other still,

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making promises to meet that are rarely kept.

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I distract myself with as much as I can, with the theatre.

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I've been tending to the theatre.

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My personal back garden, even though it's one bum after another,

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one bum after another.

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Even though all the places for inverts like me

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are disappearing one by one

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there is still so much sweet for all that bitter.

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Mm. This beer is far too weak for my taste, but it will do the trick.

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It's one for the road, and it tastes like tarmac too.

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Monday, things must change.

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My free paper bun,

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but I still have tomorrow to dance.

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RUMBLING PLASTER FALLS

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I have Dodging A Divorcee in my head and I can't shake it out.

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I wish I could carry that song with me everywhere I go.

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Press it against my ears.

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If only.

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If only. It's a foxtrot.

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No foxtrot now, but they're playing ragtime in the ballrooms.

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Ragtime.

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All those West Indians giving the crowd what they want.

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Sweating, smiling, shuffling Colonial boys.

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It's all a part of the game of belonging, and not belonging.

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When I first come over here, the landlady was full of questions.

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"Why are your palms a lighter hue?"

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She'd turn them over at the table, frowning in puzzlement.

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I let it wash over me like the other questions.

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"Where do you learn to speak such good English then?"

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And the like. Oh, she was full of them.

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I used to think it was a working-class obsession -

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my hair, my skin, the colour of my hands,

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all those comments from the East End boys.

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But I'm under no illusions now.

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No, the more refined have their ways.

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I tell them I'm going to become a lawyer, and their eyebrows arch.

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I talk to them about music, and the conversation moves to jiving,

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swing and ragtime.

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All that time I spent revelling the attention of the Bloomsbury crowd,

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the freedom I felt was an illusion.

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I know that now.

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Where I was born, you have to be as light as cornmeal to succeed,

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unless you knew how to entertain.

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Over here it's more complicated.

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And endless game of where you're schooled and who you know.

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Oh, they never slam the door in your face, the upper classes here, no.

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They make you hold the handle of the door,

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and convince you that you don't want to come in after all.

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But all of that is changing with this blasted war.

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Tonight I was good enough for the Cafe de Paris

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because there was no-one else left in Soho.

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The grand Cafe de Paris is where you can dance now,

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where I can dance now they're no longer concerned with my appearance.

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They started opening up their clientele - that's what they said.

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It's funny how some places change their tune, eh?

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They call it the safest spot in town.

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Deep underground with a full swing band, a West Indian band at that.

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A whole heap of brass and brown skins - who'd have thought that, eh?

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I was going tonight, to the Cafe de Paris.

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To see Snakehips, the King of Swing,

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the band leader at the helm of it all.

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He has a twinkle in his eye, this hypnotising movement at the loins

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that make a boy like me salivate.

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He was like that from day one, Snakehips,

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before he plucked himself out from among the riffraff

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to make it into the big halls.

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They all talk about him, "Snakehips."

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Even the Thames seems to do a little dancing dip like he does

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once the river hits this side of town.

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But all that he do isn't real music - it's all showmanship.

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And I'm not complaining. The one entertains, the other sustains.

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And it's not like I don't like the swing,

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the way it makes your body bend, but that is the real difference

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between the bottle parties and the Cafe de Paris.

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It's not just who gets past the doors, but what's behind them.

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I could've been hit by that bomb tonight.

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I should be dead.

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I didn't go there tonight. I went... I went to the theatre.

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That's what I call it, the lavatories around Piccadilly

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where men who speak my language like to entertain each other.

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The real West End theatres are all closed now.

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Soon after the bombs started coming, they were forced to,

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but the Cafe de Paris was open for business.

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Too deep underground for the Germans to hit it.

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I was meant to go, but I couldn't bring myself

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to darken the doors of a place that would have refused me entry

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just a year ago. I'm too proud for that.

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Nobody ever tell me in words, but I feel it in the tailoring of my skin.

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We're proud, or weak-hearted. The result is the same.

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I wasn't good enough to enter then

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unless I was one of the entertainers.

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I was on my way

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and then this urge came upon me like a river,

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and my feet meandered away from the entrance of the club

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and straight into the theatre inside the Regent Palace Hotel.

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It was a fluid movement.

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The porters often turn a blind eye

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so long as we don't cause a disturbance.

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I was stood at the urinals in the semi dark,

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with a middle-aged man's hands inside my flies,

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and he had a strong grip too.

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Halfway through the sirens went off

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and we had to run for shelter right away.

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All of us, except for the chancers, as always.

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The chance of a few minutes to find a hand, or mouth, or more,

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in the dark is too good to pass by.

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I escaped into the streets

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and I caught a glint in the eye of a warden,

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and I followed him down a side passage.

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He tasted of the suburbs, like he had a Hammersmith wife

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waiting for him at the back of his throat.

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There's that something in my blood that draws the married man to me

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with all his sweetness and complications.

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It's not a bad thing. I have a sweet tooth.

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HE CHUCKLES

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Oh, Snakehips is in my head still. Boy, he could move.

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I heard the whistle of it landing

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and I could feel the ground around me shake

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as I pulled the warden's thighs close against me.

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I can see Snakehips dancing...

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and I can hear him singing.

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Right as the bomb lifted him clean off the stage.

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The bomb went down the ventilation shaft, and then...

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Pow!

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The safest spot in London gone, just like that.

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It was an hour or two ago now, but here we are drinking on.

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Another one went off ten minutes later,

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while I still had the taste of the warden in my mouth.

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And just as I'm arriving to the shelter, there's all this

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debris falling, and I don't know where the blood came from -

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if I hit my head or if I bit my lip too hard, but all I see is blood.

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I could've been there.

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I promised myself I would finally see inside of that blessed club.

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Take my rightful place with the creme de la creme.

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But sometimes a broken promise is what it takes to keep you alive.

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Instead, I chose the path of the warden

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who tasted of Hammersmith and gin.

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I can't have been more than 200 yards away from where the bomb hit,

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and I survived.

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Monday.

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Monday is the day I'm going to join up for war service.

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I'll join up before I'm forced to, in my way, in the Fredrick way,

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and I will survive the same way, like I've always done.

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Of course, I knew one day I'd be called up.

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I dreaded it, I never wanted it.

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I'd rather dance away my days than join in the bloodshed, but tonight -

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tonight I finally realised that the fight will come to me

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if I don't come to it first. And I will fight for this bush village.

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For the bottle parties that have come and gone,

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for sweet and complicated men that have come and gone.

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And, yes, for Snakehips.

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And, yes, for the Cafe de Paris.

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But also for the theatres.

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Most of all, I'm going to fight for the theatres

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and all the other places that never closed their doors to men like me.

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That's if they even have doors to start with.

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That is the only fight I can take up with any conviction.

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And I will be back sometime,

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and I will sit down in a Soho pub which will be better than here.

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And maybe even better than the Shim Sham.

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And God help them if they haven't learned to pour decent beer by then.

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Would you mind kissing me?

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You're not even out, are you?

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As the Blitz hits London, Fredrick is grateful that he survived in a very unlikely place of refuge.


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